When we think of great teams in sports, we typically attribute their success to the players who have superior ability to execute. We also credit success to the head coach who helped develop the team, honed their skills, and ultimately positioned them for great success. No one who follows sports believes that players and teams can go it alone without a great coach—and it’s certainly never the other way around, either.
Why then, when we discuss organizational agility, do we think teams, as talented as they may be, can go it alone without their day-to-day coach—their Scrum Master? Unfortunately, this role can be the most controversial of all in Scrum, and people who are not completely familiar with the Scrum roles sometimes react with confusion, suspicion, or outright incredulity. What does this even mean? What is this master of Scrum? Sounds like complete rubbish, an imaginary role that offers no credibility or substance.
Clearly, we need some help understanding the role of the Scrum Master.
What is the Scrum Master?
A Scrum Master is the coach and day-to-day leader for the Scrum team, Product Owner (PO), and organization. Like the head coach in football, they promote and support the team by teaching values, theory, practices, and rules —effectively the foundations of success. Scrum Masters serve the Scrum team by shielding them from outside forces, removing impediments, and coaching them in self-organization and cross-functionality, all of which allows them to focus on creating high-value products.
The Scrum Master also encourages the team to improve its development process and practices to make the next sprint more effective and enjoyable. They help keep the team focused on the sprint commitments.
How do Scrum Masters serve the Product Owner (PO)?
Scrum Masters serve the PO by offering techniques for effective product backlog management; ensuring everyone understands the goals, scope, and product domain; and facilitating Scrum events as requested or needed.
The organization relies on the Scrum Master to lead and coach the Scrum adoption, induce change to increase the productivity of the Scrum teams, and help everyone to understand and enact Scrum and empirical product development. In addition, Scrum Masters continually monitor transparency by inspecting the artifacts, sensing patterns, listening closely, and detecting differences between expected and real results.
The Scrum Master and the path to team success
Without the Scrum Master, we must assume that the Scrum team and PO work together like a well-oiled machine and fully comprehend expectations. (We have yet to experience this.) Who is going to help those outside the team understand which interactions are helpful and which aren’t? Who will explain the why behind the what and the how? Who is monitoring the health of the team, keeping Scrum events focused and efficient, and coaching the team on autonomy, cross-functionality, and self-organization? Who is continually observing the team dynamics, enforcing the agile mindset, and challenging for continual improvement?
More simply said, who is going to connect the team with its most effective path to success?
The importance of one-on-ones
An additional way Scrum Masters can reinforce the value of the collaborative coaching view is by holding regular one-on-ones. These individual meetings are a chance to receive feedback and answer questions about Scrum and, more importantly, to develop the proper collaborative relationship with each team member. Spending one-on-one time with each person on the team sends the message that they, their thoughts, and their actions are valuable. This enables the Scrum Master to build trust, which is key for high performance.
A one-on-one session is an extremely efficient technique to:
- Connect with people
- Uncover impediments
- Learn of problems early on
- Provide space for feedback and coaching
- Teach the Scrum framework
- Gain insight into how the Scrum Master can improve
This technique is not only useful for team members. Scrum Masters can also schedule regular one-on-ones with the managers of their team members—not as a complaint session or an opportunity to air dirty laundry, but to establish a partnership where both roles are helping each team member, and the overall team, be the best they can be. This also helps the manager increase the effectiveness of their own one-on-ones with team members.
It’s a lot like individual coaching for the players, in addition to coaching for the team as a group.
Scrum Master = Team Coach
We don’t always need to resort to sports analogies, but what if we rename the role of Scrum Master to Team Coach? Does that help turn on a mental light bulb? Do facial expressions loosen, eyebrows relax, and people lean forward, fingers steepled at their lips, in a pose of thoughtfulness?
So, perhaps that’s it. If leadership and team members viewed Scrum Masters as coaches, then perhaps Scrum Masters wouldn’t be continually trying to understand or justify their role.
After all, at work as in sports, every great team needs a coach. Don’t they?
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